Problem Drinking Among Women a Growing Concern

How to tell if you have an alcohol problem and what you can do about it
By Nicole Lee, Curtin University
March 9, 2019 Updated: March 16, 2019

Last month, close to 40,000 people, mostly women, gave up alcohol for FebFast and many others will be participating in Dry July.

These events began as fundraisers for various social causes. But the main reasons people cite for participating are related to personal benefits, including giving their body a break from alcohol and improving their health.

The proportion of young people drinking has decreased over the past 10 years. But more women in their 40s and 50s are drinking at risky levels. And women are catching up to men when it comes to drinking at levels that damage health.

Women’s relationship with alcohol has become a hot topic. Many women, including celebrities Nigella Lawson, Kristen Davis, and Jada Pinkett Smith, have been vocal about their decisions to reduce drinking to improve their health and well-being.

Alcohol Affects Women More Than Men

Women start to have alcohol-related problems sooner and at lower drinking levels than men.

If a man and a woman drink the same amount, in general, a woman’s blood alcohol concentration will be higher.

Women tend to be smaller and lighter than men; a person who is lighter or who has a smaller body frame will be more affected than someone who weighs more or has a larger body frame. If the same amount of alcohol is going into a smaller body there will be a higher concentration of alcohol.

Even if a man and woman are the same sizes, women tend to have a higher percentage of body fat and a lower percentage of body water than men.

Here’s what happens when we take the first, second, and fifth drink.

Dehydrogenase is the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the body. Women tend to have less active dehydrogenase and therefore take longer to process alcohol, so they will get drunk faster and have alcohol in their system for longer.

Women who drink experience health problems sooner and that are more severe than men who drink the same amount.

How Alcohol Affects Your Health

Alcohol can increase the risk of significant health problems, including cancer, brain damage, liver disease, and heart disease.

Women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should not drink alcohol at all until the baby is born.

If you drink while pregnant, the alcohol can go through your blood and to the baby. This can cause deformities and cognitive damage in the baby, known as fetal alcohol syndrome.

If you are breastfeeding, small amounts of alcohol can go through breast milk to the baby. It’s better to drink after breastfeeding times rather than before or during.

How Much Is Too Much?

The idea that a little bit of alcohol is good for your health has been debunked due to flawed sampling in the original study.

The Australian alcohol guidelines recommend healthy adults (men and women) should drink no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from an alcohol-related disease.

Two standard drinks equal around 200ml (6.8 oz) of wine. (Chris Montgomery)

The guidelines also recommend consuming a maximum of four standard drinks on a single occasion to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injury.

The percentage of pure alcohol varies across different types of drinks, so the guidelines convert alcohol to standard drinks. In Australia, a standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, which equates to 100mls (3.4 oz) of wine or 285mls (9.6 oz) of regular strength beer or cider or 30mls (1 oz) of regular strength spirit. A cosmopolitan or mojito typically counts as two or three standard drinks.

Signs You May Need to Cut Back

If you answer used to any of the following questions, you likely need to reduce your alcohol intake.

  • Are you drinking every day or nearly every day? Daily drinking is associated with dependence.
  • Are you drinking more than the recommended limits? Drinking more than two drinks on any day is associated with long-term health problems.
  • Do you need to drink more to get the same effect? This indicates growing tolerance to alcohol and is an early sign of dependence.
  • Do you have difficulty taking a break or cutting back? Are you drinking more than you intend to? These are signs that you have less control over how much you drink.
  • Do you find that drinking is interfering with day-to-day activities on a regular basis, for example being late for work because you have a hangover?
  • Do you notice your well-being is affected by drinking? For example, do you get feelings of anxiety or depression during or after drinking, or have trouble sleeping? Alcohol can be relaxing while you are drinking, but it can make anxiety, depression, and sleep problems worse.
  • Are doing things while you are drinking that you later regret?

If so, it’s time to reassess your drinking. This online assessment tool may help.

If drinking is interfering with your day-to-day activities, it might be time to cut back.
(Stage 7 Photography)

How to Cut Back

If you’re drinking more than you’d like to, make a plan to cut back. Here are some approaches that may work for you.

  • Set a drink limit that reduces health risks.
  • Have alcohol-free days every week.
  • Drink non-alcoholic “spacers” before and in-between alcoholic drinks.
  • Sip your drinks rather than gulp them down. Slowing your drinking enables your body to process the alcohol and you will drink less.
  • Try drinks with a lower alcohol content.
  • Eat before and/or while you are drinking. This helps slow the absorption of alcohol.
  • Skip a round. Don’t feel like you need to keep up with everyone else.

Where to Get Help

Most women who drink alcohol, even those who drink a little too much, don’t need specialist treatment. That said, taking a break from alcohol can improve your physical and mental well-being.

There are resources online that may help you cut back your drinking, such as Hello Sunday Morning.

Your doctor is a good place to start if you have questions or concerns about your drinking.

Your state, county, or city may also have its own resources for problem drinking. Many people have also found success with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Nicole Lee is an adjunct professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University in Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation

RECOMMENDED